Starring: Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Cloris Leachman
Director: James L. Brooks
THE United States is a nation founded by immigrants, from the Pilgrim Fathers who fled England in 1620 to the massive migrations from Europe and South America in later centuries.
But in a culture dominated by a white elite, Latinos and blacks are forced to seek their share of the American dream through assimilation and the “melting plot”.
It is this cultural conformity that director James L. Brooks seems to be questioning in his comedy-drama Spanglish.
Narrated in flashback, Spanish actor Paz Vega (Talk to Her) plays Flor, a beautiful single mother who emigrates to Los Angeles from Mexico in the hope of finding a better life for herself and her six year-old daughter Cristina (Victoria Luna).
After six years in the comfortable environs of Los Angeles’ Latino community, Flor decides that for the sake of her daughter (Shelbie Bruce), they must venture beyond the ghetto into the “foreign land” of mainstream America.
Speaking no English, Flor applies for a job as housekeeper to a pampered American family, the Claskys, and to her surprise gets it.
However, the Claskys are far from being an “average” American family, or so it would seem.
Husband John (Adam Sandler) is a warm, easy-going chef who runs his own restaurant.
But his wife Deborah (Tea Leoni) is a highly strung WASP who is so tormented by a lack of self-esteem that her two young children, especially Berenice (Sarah Steele), play a poor second fiddle to her mounting anxieties.
Added to the brew is Deborah’s worldly wise, live-in mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), an ex-jazz singer who copes with her daughter’s needs and insecurities by becoming a benign alcoholic.
This household is the portal for Flor’s entry into the American mainstream.
When the Claskys depart for Malibu on a holiday taking Flor and Cristina with them, this “extended family” becomes the arena for a complex and not entirely successful exploration of culture clash.
Deborah rejects her own daughter in favour of Cristina who is prettier and smarter, and John discovers that he has more in common with Flor’s views about the needs of children and parental responsibility than Deborah’s.
Spanglish will divide audiences into those who find the film warm and endearing, a “sitcom” for the big screen with interesting themes, and those who find it overlong and unnecessarily preachy, with two-dimensional characters that fall uncomfortably into stereotypes.
Brooks (As Good as it Gets, Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment) could easily have made all his characters “Anglo” and concentrated his talents in exploring in depth the cultural pressures on affluent Americans to be thin, beautiful and successful, and the way these aspirations can interfere with good parenting.
Instead, he has stereotyped the underclass to which Flor belongs by implying that her admirable qualities (her pride, independence, and selfless nurturing of Cristina) derive simply from her being Latino.
By denying that Latinos can also succumb to inauthentic behaviour, Brooks fails to acknowledge the individuality that exists within the Latino community.
Despite fine performances from the actors and an impressive Hollywood debut from the lovely Vega, this inverse prejudice defeats Brooks’ humanist intent.